1 March 2004
Value of a degree education
The debate over the value a degree education is starting to overplay the role of technical skills, writes Anthony Brien.
Trade and vocational training is enjoying a revival, driven by concerns overstudent debt, poor workforce planning, skills shortages and an oversupply of graduates in a few isolated cases.
One industry commentator (The Press, February 19) recently went so far as to suggest that for the vast majority of positions in the hotel and hospitality sector, the best approach is to “earn while you learn” through on-the-job training. This may be true for someone who expects to focus on the technical and operational aspects of the industry, but it will not be enough for those wanting to progress to the strategic and managerial functions, and on to positions of real responsibility (and serious remuneration). We should not underestimate how many of these opportunities exist in an increasingly corporate and global industry.
It is for exactly this reason that New Zealand’s major degree programmes, such as those at Lincoln University and Auckland University of Technology are focused on providing a sound understanding of business practice related to a specific industry. Both include a mandatory practical component.
There are many examples of the need for strong managerial skills. Take the food and beverage manager of an international hotel in Auckland, with a departmental turnover of $10million per annum. The position requires strong trade skills but it also demands solid accounting, financial, marketing, human resources and strategic planning skills. Theoretically it might be possible to learn these skills on the job but in reality it is difficult, when the focus of the position is operational and daily tasks are performed under pressure. These types of managerial functions cannot be left to chance in the corporate or international setting where the stakes are so much higher. At the café and or small-medium business level, a wrong move strategically may lose market share or cost several jobs – which is a serious situation - but at the corporate or international level there may be million-dollar consequences.
Polytechnics and other training providers on the whole do an excellent job of providing the industry with technical skills. Solid managerial skills, as provided by degree qualification provide a balance.
If the targeted career of the young New Zealander is that of a small-to-medium sized café/restaurant/bar ownership then perhaps an advanced diploma in hospitality management will suffice. But let’s not confuse that with managerial careers in major operations such as international hotels. These are multi-million dollar businesses, and a university degree is becoming the normal requirement for consideration as a management trainee. Some commentators have questioned whether the universities are giving an unrealistic impression of how and where graduates will enter the industry. If this is the case, it is not a perception provided to students by Lincoln University or, from my recent experience in Auckland, by AUT. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that the trade instructors tell a newly qualified chef they can expect to be initially engaged as a Chef de Parte or Sous Chef. Degree graduates seek and gain positions in international hotels that provide a professional managerial career path option and associated benefits. Graduates are expected to undertake ongoing professional development related to their career, which may well be some technical training.
While it is agreed that our New Zealand hospitality industry needs skilled people to satisfy the growing tourism industry – it needs skilled people in all areas; trade and managerial – working together to produce successful business results for the company and the country. Recent experience shows there is a steady demand for graduates with these skills. The key is to provide the right balance of both, at the right time, and in the right locations. A coordinated industry/education approach – as is presently developing - will ensure these objectives are met for the benefit of all.
Anthony Brien is Senior Lecturer in Hotel Management at Lincoln University and an Executive Council Director of the London-based Hotel and Catering International Management Association (HCIMA).